From Agent Orange to Coronavirus: How Guam's residents have been put at risk time and again by US military
The island already has a complex relationship with the US which is now getting more complicated because of the ongoing pandemic
Residents of Guam are not new to constant US military presence on the strategic Pacific island. However, with the novel coronavirus outbreak, they are fearing for their lives as hundreds of sailors from a coronavirus-stricken Navy aircraft carrier flood into the island’s hotels to quarantine.
An outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt began in late March infecting more than 580 sailors. Amid this, the ship’s commander Capt. Brett E Crozier was fired for distributing a letter urging faster action to protect his sailors, leaving the Navy into a leadership crisis.
The carrier has been docked in the US territory for over a week as the 4,865-person crew is tested for the virus and moved ashore. However, what has made locals nervous is that many sailors, who have tested negative, are isolating in the island’s hotels and they do not exactly know where they are being put.
“Being negative today doesn’t mean that they won’t be in a week or so. The decision to house them in the middle of our community is playing a game of chance with the health of our people,” a group of locals, who have urged Guam Governor Lourdes Leon Guerrero to reconsider allowing the sailors to stay in hotels, said in a statement.
“Our people are getting slapped in the face,” said Hope Cristobal, one of the residents of Guam, who thinks officials are making promises about safety but are unable to keep up. Cristobal lives less than a quarter-mile from hotels in Tumon, a district located in the municipality of Tamuning which is the center of Guam's tourist industry. “We don’t know exactly where they’re being housed,” she added.
According to reports, Mary Rhodes, president of the Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association, declined to disclose the names of the hotels where the Navy personnel have been housed.
But she said that each sailor is staying in a room stocked with two weeks’ worth of linens, towels, and water. She also mentioned that the sailors are not in contact with locals or hotel workers, only military police and medical teams are allowed to meet them.
“I know there will be a small chorus of cynics who will oppose this decision, but now is not the time for ‘us versus them’. We can protect Guam while being humane to them," Rhodes said.
The Rev. Fran Hezel, who is a parish priest at Santa Barbara Catholic Church in Dededo, Guam’s most populated village, also said that locals are not upset about the move. “I’ve come to the conclusion that Guam … has got as deep links with the military as it does with the Catholic faith,” he said.
However, these words are not benefitting the people of the island as Cristobal said the presence of Navy is adding to an already stressful situation, “I have shortness of breath, and I’m wondering if it’s COVID or is it my anxiety.”
People are also questioning the double standards of Governor Guerrero, who immediately imposed lockdown after the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed on the island on March 15.
However, later she only accepted thousands of sailors from the infected ship as she said, “These are sailors who run the USS Theodore Roosevelt. They are operating a very significant, strategic, critical asset for national security and defense in this part of the world… If I believed these sailors would minimize or compromise the safety of our people, I would have never agreed to help.”
She added that the Theodore Roosevelt’s crew includes about 20 local Guam residents, adding, “Because we have provided help, the military is working to supply the people of Guam supplies and resources in return.”
Local Senator Sabina Flores Perez wrote a letter to Governor Guerrero, criticizing her move. Perez said, “If sailors are placed in our hotels, we will be exposing lower-wage employees to greater risk, many of whom are older and have limited or no health benefits for themselves and their families."
This is not the first time that the people of Guam have been put at risk by the US mainland (and military). The relation has already been complicated as there are several reports of the US government’s alleged usage of toxic chemicals, like Agent Orange, on the land of Guam, which left hundreds of American veterans as well as their future generation sickened and disabled.
During the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1971, the US military had reportedly used Agent Orange as part of its herbicidal warfare program called "Operation Ranch Hand". The usage of the herbicide has caused major health problems for many exposed to it.
In 2019, a group called the Agent Orange Survivors of Guam also asked members of Congress for their support on a bill to be introduced to help with medical treatment of about 52,000 military personnel who may have been exposed to herbicides such as Agent Orange while serving on Guam, the CNMI, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll decades ago.
A report by Pacific Daily News also stated that if the bill becomes law, it could also open the door for the people of Guam to seek medical help for illnesses that may be linked to herbicide exposure. Guam Del. Mike San Nicolas, a Democrat, and Republican Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Florida had sponsored the bill. “The congressional office will always advocate for our veterans," San Nicolas said at the time.
Not only this, but many people in Guam also say they are treated as second-class citizens as they do not have the right to vote for the President. Their representative also has no voting power, even though most people living in the territory are US citizens.
“Most members of Congress, they couldn't find Guam on a map and they don't want to because it's completely off their radar," Anne Perez Hattori, a Chamorro History professor at the University of Guam, told AJ+.
"We're reliant upon US Congress to determine our rights, and US Congress, it's this huge body. We don't have a vote there, so we don't have bargaining power," Hattori added.